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Symphonic matters

Attending to the symphony in 18th-century England -

'There is delicious writing along the way for woodwind and horns.'

18th Century British Symphonies (c) 2001 ASV Ltd


There is no need to blush if the names of Collett, Marsh and Smethergell have not so far been anyone's top favourite in symphonic matters; not even Dr Burney lists them. He was of course apprenticed, rather uneasily, to Dr Arne and added his bit to the 'Alfred' opera, which included 'Rule Britannia' as a show of defiance to Bonnie Prince Charlie in 1745. Arne was leader of the band and composed for the fashionable gardens of the time, mainly Vauxhall, but also Ranelagh and Marylebone. Burney had a high opinion of Carl Abel, writing to a German colleague about him in November 1771: 'Abel has been many years in England, has composed excellent symphonies and Quartets for violins etc....and he is, moreover, the most perfect player of the Viol da gamba I have ever heard, indeed his taste is the most exquisite and refined'. Burney also approves of the Earl of Kelly, claiming he 'was possessed of more musical science than any dilettante with whom I was ever acquainted'. He reported that before going to Germany, he 'could scarcely tune his fiddle'; but then he 'shut himself up at Mannheim with the elder Stamitz' and returned a fully-equipped musician.

Not that the other composers are negligible; far from it. Collett dedicated his Op 2 symphonies as a 'young Adventurer' to Kelly, and certainly learnt some Mannheim tricks from him, such as the famous 'crescendo' and the idea of adding a minuet to the symphony. Marsh was another 'amateur' composer, trained as a lawyer but inheriting sufficient means to settle near Canterbury, where he revitalised local music, and then at Chichester. As well as symphonies he wrote books on astronomy and campanology. He was a keen member of the anti-Napoleonic Chichester volunteers, and alone of this composer half-dozen was not metropolitan. Smethergell, by contrast, was a City organist, who was born and died in London. He wrote a certain amount 'for the improvement of juvenile performers', but his eight-part 'overtures' were Vauxhall novelties and favourites, popular enough to need a second edition.

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Copyright © 13 October 2001 Robert Anderson, London, UK






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